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Of the earth - earthy

11th Sunday after Trinity BCP

27 August 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

There are all sorts of subtle ways to assert our superiority over others, whether intellectually, financially, or socially. We probably don't even notice we are doing it. The so-called upper echelons of society are the quickest both to make the rules, and be most deft in using coded language to send out the required messages ensuring self-advantage. We don't need to read Pygmalion or go to a production of My Fair Lady to know how much about background is revealed by our accent and choice of language. Or what we wear. The Americanisation of our culture during and after the Thatcher era has led to a decline in having to learn and abide by unspoken traditions as far as how the system works, and how decisions are made. Almost gone too, I hope, are the days when to say 'he is not one of us' was to cripple a career. Despite the huge distance still to travel, we see increasingly the sharing of financial and political power with people from minority ethnic backgrounds, with women, and even with those from the former colonies! How many people seriously still think and pray 'I thank thee God I am not like them'?

Today's gospel is not a unique Biblical example of the temptation to seek exalted status. Think of James and John causing indignation amongst their fellow apostles by trying to gain the top places on the right and left of Jesus in his glory…the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

But we need carefully to attend to the true significance of the characters in today's parable - because it is so well known that familiarity has numbed any sort of reaction. The word Pharisee is now used as a pejorative term, but in gospel times it referred to a genuinely upright and prayerful person…a pillar of society, honourable and conscientious. The modern equivalent might be a PCC member who gives a sacrificial proportion of his or her income to the Church in the Gift Aid scheme, and comes to worship Sunday by Sunday. A publican in the King James Bible is a translation of the Latin and has nothing to do with the keeper of a public house, but refers rather to a tax collector. And tax gatherers in Jesus' day equally had almost nothing in common with the modern counterpart from the Inland Revenue. They were collaborators, traitors, despised as scum and viewed with disgust.

So, in today's well-known story we have on the one hand the Pharisee's smug pride in his good deeds, which God is frequently reminded about, as he imagines credit being built up in some kind of celestial bank account. On the other hand, there is the straightforward candour of the publican who, despite learning whatever was the coded language of financial survival under Roman occupation, and coming from the messy world of evasion and extortion, nevertheless shows no pretence as he prays honestly from the heart.

Our Lord is teaching about humility, which is the most elusive of virtues, because it grows, not by our aiming for it directly, but as a by-product of our growth in generosity and sense of total dependence upon God. There is nothing Obadiah Slope about humility…it isn't the creepy and slimy marking oneself down and pretending to be a nobody and mere dirt. That is as much pretence as setting oneself on a pedestal of imagined and impregnable virtue. No, humility means being down to earth - literally close to the 'humus' the earth (of the earth - earthy). Realistic. (*** Fr. Crispin is with us today and was on the staff of my theological college together with Fr. Jack…who in his best Lancashire accent loved this phrase 'of the earth…earthy' and it was a sort of leitmotif for a great deal of his preaching. He kept that strong Manchester accent even though he is in Yorkshire now as Bishop of Sheffield! ***) The mystery of the incarnation, of Christmas, is about humility, of God becoming as close to the 'humus' as it is possible to be, as he shares our humanity. Reality is revealed to us in His passion, His death, and most wonderfully of all in His resurrection, and this pattern remains the basis for all reality…death and new life. Despite God's ways not being our ways, only one reality exists both in heaven and on earth.

The sin of the Pharisee is a failure in truthfulness and honesty…pretending to be what he is not, and so he isn't a real person standing before God. Which means, sadly, there is no genuine prayer. Whereas the tax collector is open and honest…there is no pretence, and consequently there is real prayer. The tax collector goes home at rights with God not because he hadn't sinned, but because he had started on the road to humility…and God looks only for the slightest signs of faith and humility. 'God be merciful to me a sinner' is the basis of the Jesus prayer much used in the orthodox tradition, and which I first heard as a student in Pusey House from the then Fr, David Hope during on all night vigil. 'Lord Jesus Christ Son of the living God have mercy on me a sinner'. It has formed the basis of my whole prayer life, and I've not seen any need to change in the 28 years since I first learned it.

Humility should sit most comfortably with the prayer which is the Eucharist. Here we are in the sacramental presence of the incarnate God in the very act of His greatest humility, his self-emptying on the Cross. We are invited to offer our souls and bodies together with Christ, and there is no room for even an ounce (or a gram) of human pride - all is gift. That is why at the beginning of every Eucharist we are invited to identify with the tax collector's contrition: 'God be merciful to me a sinner'. Kyrie eleison. That is why C.S. Lewis tells us 'Man needs to be triply protected by humility, if he is to eat the bread of angels without risk'.
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